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Egypt: Cairo's first bike-sharing project comes to nothing

Failure of the scheme seen as a setback to efforts to reduce emissions in the capital, ahead of it hosting November's COP27 summit
Cairo Bike bicycles parked at a station in the Egyptian capital, on 14 September 2022 (MEE)
By MEE correspondent in Cairo

What would have been the Egyptian capital's first bike-sharing project is hitting the wall, raising multiple questions over possible reasons for its suspension. 

The failure of Cairo Bike comes more than eight years after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi got on his bike in the city with hundreds of other cyclists to promote cycling as a means of reducing energy consumption and getting fit.

Cairo Bike is a joint endeavour by Cairo Governorate and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme to reduce harmful emissions in the capital, especially in the centre. It was due to have provided hundreds of bicycles that people could rent for one Egyptian pound (roughly five US cents) an hour and eight pounds a day. 

The bikes in the project have GPS trackers and would have been distributed to five main points in central Cairo and 26 points across the capital. Cyclists could have booked the bicycles through a mobile app or with prepaid cards. 

The first phase of the project included 250 bicycles and was launched in mid-July by Cairo Governorate authorities. However, this phase has not progressed beyond the official opening. The second phase should have been launched in September. 

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Potential to cut pollution 

In mid-September, at one of the five stations in the city, the orange two-wheelers were positioned in so orderly a fashion that they attracted many people passing by on the way to or from work. 

Some people came to this station on Abdel Moneim Riad Square, a few metres away from Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, especially to ask about the bicycles and whether they could rent them for an hour or two. 

"They are not functional," replied the man responsible for guarding the bikes. 

"This is frustrating," said Mohamed Hassan, a university student. 

He arrived at the station with a group of colleagues, each of them hoping to rent a bike for a few hours to go to the nearby Gezira Sporting Club on the Nile island of Zamalek, where they had a football training session. 

"The bicycles would have saved us money and rescued us from Cairo's overcrowded transport," Hassan said. 

Around him on each side, motorists kept honking the horns of their vehicles, creating an intolerable background noise. The same vehicles tore down roads in the area, spewing huge amounts of smoke into the air. 

President Sisi riding a bike with hundreds of people in Cairo in June 2014 (Egyptian Presidency/Reuters)
President Sisi leads a bike ride with hundreds of other cyclists in Cairo, in June 2014 (Egyptian Presidency)

Hopes were pinned on Cairo Bike to reduce harmful emissions in the capital, which, with over 10 million residents and 2.5 million vehicles, is Egypt's most polluted city. The project, environmentalists say, could have contributed significantly to slashing pollution and to partly solving traffic problems in the city centre. 

"Cycling should be encouraged in crowded places like downtown Cairo as a way of reducing harmful emissions and pollution in general," former deputy environment minister Magdi Allam told Middle East Eye. 

Cairo Governorate authorities were hoping to use the project as an alternative to the tens of thousands of vehicles that enter central Cairo every day, based around a large network of bike points or hubs. It would also have been a means of integrating transport with health and environmental practices to limit harmful greenhouse gas emissions in Cairo. 

Upcoming COP27

The project, which is also sponsored by Swiss non-profit Drosos Foundation, and receives technical support from international non-profit organisation the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, should have been part of Egypt's preparations for the 27th United Nations Climate Change summit (COP27), which will be held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh this November.

Egypt says it will use the summit to encourage developed nations to turn into action the pledges they made in previous COPs. It also promises to do its best to turn the attention of the same developed nations to the need for providing developing and poor states, especially in Africa, with the necessary finance to adapt to climate change. 

Cairo is now trying to unite African countries behind its agenda for the summit. 

'There is an urgent need for redesigning the roads in a way that allows for the presence of bike lanes'

Hassan AH Mahdy, professor of road engineering

In recent years, Egypt, one of the countries to be hardest hit by global warming, has launched a large number of adaptation and mitigation projects. It will designate Sharm el-Sheikh a "green city". The Egyptian government is also launching projects to protect its Mediterranean coast from erosion and others to reduce emissions in different parts of the country. 

Nonetheless, the failure of the Cairo Bike project is a setback to these efforts, especially in the capital. Cairo Governorate officials did not return calls by MEE for comment on the project stalling. However, the governorate released a statement almost a month ago, in which it said the project was still under way. 

"The project will be launched within a month," the statement said.

Lack of infrastructure

The man standing guard over the bikes placed neatly at the Abdel Moneim Riad station did not know the reason why Cairo Bike had come to a halt.

"People working in the stations were only told not to give the bicycles to anybody," he said, after initial hesitation and requesting not to be named.  

The talk among people working on the project is that a major ride-sharing company had objected to the implementation of Cairo Bike, which would have deprived it of a sizeable number of clients who request rides in central Cairo and the vicinity. 

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Even without these rumoured objections, the project faced a number of hurdles in the capital, including the lack of bike lanes on its streets and roads. 

"There is an urgent need for redesigning the roads in a way that allows for the presence of bike lanes, especially with dependence on bicycles as a means of transport increasing in the past years," Hassan AH Mahdy, professor of road engineering at Ain Shams University, told MEE. "The lack of such lanes puts the lives of cyclists at risk."

Nevertheless, cycling has acquired special symbolism in Egypt in the past few years: it is an empowerment tool for some, especially women. 

There is an initiative to encourage people to cycle every now and then, as part of attempts by the government and civil society to convince people to take physical activity and leave their vehicles behind. The Ministry of Youth and Sports has vowed to distribute thousands of bicycles for free to spread cycling as a culture among the public. 

The Cairo Bike project would have complemented other measures by the Cairo Governorate to turn the centre of the capital into an environment- and pedestrian-friendly space. Some streets have already been made no-go areas for vehicles as part of a plan to restore a sense of  central Cairo's former quiet and beauty.

This includes the renovation of hundreds of buildings that demonstrate different architectural styles, dating back to the times when Cairo was a meeting point for British colonial officers, Greek entrepreneurs, Italian traders and French businessmen. 

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